Does the Bible affirm, like so many people today, that musical sounds, apart from any lyrics, are neutral and harmless? Let’s explore some biblical passages that describe the astounding impact that music can have on the human soul…and even on the spiritual realm.
1 Samuel 16:14-23.
Disobedient and rebellious Saul was rejected by God as king of Israel. As a result, “the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him” (v.14). When Saul’s servants realized this, they suggested to their king: “Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well” (v.16). With his permission, they went and fetched David, a young shepherd who was famed among the servants for being “skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him” (v.18). Upon coming into Saul’s service, he found favor in the king’s sight; and the last verse of this chapter reads, “And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (v.23).
David was the ideal example of the Lord’s musician: a God fearing, humble and blameless young man of excellent reputation—and as an added benefit, he was also a highly skilled instrumentalist. And most important of all, the Lord was with Him. All these traits made him a powerful musician. Notice that in order to drive away the demonic spirit from Saul, David merely played his instrument. There is no mention whatsoever in this passage of any singing on his part. The melodious sounds of David’s music were powerful enough to drive out demons!
2 Kings 3:15-19.
The king of Moab rebelled against Jehoram, the king of Israel, refusing to pay him tribute. In hopes of recapturing this rebel nation and once again subjecting them under the rule of his kingdom, Jehoram rallied up all the warriors in Israel. The king of Edom and Jehoshaphat, the righteous king of Judah, also joined him. In a dire circumstance, Jehoshaphat desired to inquire of a prophet of the Lord for guidance. They came to Elisha the prophet. His instructions: “‘bring me a musician.’ And when the musician played, the hand of the LORD came upon him” (v.15). He then declared to them the Lord’s words.
Amazingly, the Lord came upon Elisha only after “the musician played”. Worshipful tunes called down the presence of the Lord!
Although divine prophecy did not always occur this way, in the Old Testament there is an apparent connection between music and prophetic utterances. In Israel, the prophetic ministry involved the use of music, and the worship ministry was prophetic by nature. Some other examples of this:
-1 Samuel 10:5-6 (Samuel’s prophecy to Saul after anointing him as king):
“After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, where there is a garrison of the Philistines. And there, as soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. Then the Spirit of the LORD will rush upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man.”
-1 Chronicles 25:1-7 (King David’s prophetic “worship team”):
“David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. The list of those who did the work and of their duties was: Of the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah, sons of Asaph, under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied under the direction of the king. Of Jeduthun, the sons of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the LORD. Of Heman, the sons of Heman: Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel and Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, and Romamti-ezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir, Mahazioth. All these were the sons of Heman the king's seer, according to the promise of God to exalt him, for God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king. The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the LORD, all who were skillful, was 288.”
Godly people were not the only ones in the Bible who used music for spiritual purposes, however. In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar used music as a tool to condition the people of his kingdom to worship an enormous golden image he had made:
“ And the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up’” (vv.4-5).
As the aforementioned passages clearly demonstrate, instruments were used by both the Israelites and the pagan nations for religious purposes.
The undeniable link between music and the spiritual realm is not limited to Scripture, however. Numerous extra-biblical records throughout history also demonstrate that musical arrangements were used by peoples, nations, kingdoms and empires the world over to attempt to channel into the world of the “divine”. Across time and just about in every culture without exception, songs, tunes, melodies, symphonies and compositions have been used as a spiritual exercise.
And as such, music is an immensely powerful tool—capable of ushering in the presence of the Holy Spirit at times (God permitting, of course) …but also, inversely, having even the power to invoke demonic spirits.
A myriad number of musicians seem to agree that music is spiritual in nature. Take, for instance, the following quotes by well-known artists:
“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.”
-Ludwig van Beethoven
“When the Siberian shaman gets ready to go into his trance, all the villagers get together... and play whatever instruments they have to send him off [into a trance state and possession]. … It was the same way with The Doors when we played in concert... I think that our drug experience let us get into it... [the trance state] quicker.... It was like Jim was an electric shaman and we were the electric shaman’s band, pounding away behind him. Sometimes he wouldn’t feel like getting into the state, but the band would keep on pounding and pounding, and little by little it would take him over. …I could send an electric shock through him with the organ. John could do it with his drumbeats.”
–Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors, speaking of Jim Morrison (No One Here Gets Out Alive, pp. 158-60)
“I’ve always considered that there was some way where we were able to channel energy, and that energy was able to be, from another source, if you like, like a higher power or something, that was actually doing the work. I’ve often thought of us just being actually just the earthly beings that played the music because it was uncanny. Some of this music came out extremely uncanny”
Bill Ward, drummer for Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath: An Oral History, p. 7).
“We receive our songs by inspiration, like at a séance”
-Keith Richards, guitarist for The Rolling Stones (Rolling Stone, May 5, 1977, p. 55).
“They [The Beatles] were like mediums. They weren’t conscious of all they were saying, but it was coming through them”
-Yoko Ono (The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Berkeley, 1982, p. 106.).
“It’s amazing that it [the tune to ‘In My Life’] just came to me in a dream. That’s why I don’t profess to know anything. I think music is very mystical.”
-John Lennon (“The Beatles Come Together,” Reader’s Digest, March 2001).
“...it’s like I’m on automatic pilot. By the time we’re halfway through the first number someone else is steering me. I’m just along for the ride. I become possessed when I get on stage.”
Angus Young, lead guitarist for AC-DC (Hit Parader, July 1985, p. 60).
And here is an interesting quote about music and religion by a neuroscientist:
"As I've written before in books and blogs, I am an atheist and yet I have an empathy for religion. Intellectually, I do not think there is a literal God. Emotionally, I am not anti-religious. One of the reasons why I feel an emotional empathy for religion is that it reminds me of my attitude toward music.
Many of the moral generalizations that have been applied to religion apply just as well to music. Music is a cultural phenomenon. It intensifies emotions. It helps cement communities. It can range from the terroristic to the sublime. The Nazis after all had nationalistic Nazi music to fire up their citizens, and in more recent decades we've seen cop killer music. On the other end of the spectrum, the rousing music of the civil rights movement advocated for equality, and Beethoven's Ninth was a politically and socially radical statement about the joy of human solidarity.
Yet something else harder to put into words, something that goes beyond cultural impact, unites music and religion. When I am listening to certain pieces of music I feel a reverence creeping over me, an awe that has a spiritual quality. For myself, classical music does it. For others, of course, different styles of music trigger the same reverential reaction."
- Dr. Michael Graziano, "Why is Music a Religious Experience?" (article)
The list of quotes could go on and on.
Given all the clear evidence already mentioned in this series, it would be an utterly foolish and futile attempt for anyone to continue to insist that musical sounds are in any way, shape or form “neutral”.
Well, then, having gotten all this information out of the way, I will next address a question that you, dear reader, may be asking: “If this is all true, THEN WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO LISTEN TO?”
If music is not neutral and therefore not all music is appropriate—what kind of music is appropriate to bring to God in worship?
In the next several entries of this series, I will first present some general biblical principles for godly worship. Then, I will tackle some of the modern subcultures and genres of our day (rock, hip hop, metal, etc), and we will together discover if they fit the Christian worldview and are appropriate as worship before a holy God. Afterwards, I will take on some objections by proponents of the styles of music mentioned above.